Iron Man 2 Review: Downey And Rockwell Power Through A Tangled Tale

There are screenplays that are as well-engineered and powerful as the armor Tony Stark built for himself in the movie Iron Man. And then there are those that...aren't. But a sloppy script can still be charming and fun enough to pass a couple hours when acted out by people like Robert Downey, Jr., Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke. Thinking back on Iron Man 2, it is difficult to say what the point of the story was, but I had a fine old time watching the cast and crew try to figure it out.

We open on a sequence that mirrors Tony Stark's (Downey) creation of the first Iron Man armor. The architect this time is Ivan Vanko (Rourke), a heavily tattooed Russian fashion disaster who is also a brilliant engineer and physicist. Blueprints suggest that Vanko's father helped Tony Stark's pop come up with the generator that powers the Iron Man armor. Bitter at his family's lowly, forgotten status as Stark seemingly rules the world, Vanko builds his own power source, the better to take on Stark.

So, right off, we've got themes: fathers and sons, jealousy, hubris and the responsibility of power. So far, so good. But without the structure of an origin story to fall back upon, screenwriter Justin Theroux, director Jon Favreau and the rest of the team cobbled together a story out of original parts and material drawn from two popular existing storylines: Armor Wars, in which Stark rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) steals Stark technology, and Demon in a Bottle, in which Tony battles alcoholism.

The Armor Wars stuff works pretty well. It hits the jealousy and responsibility of power themes nicely, and gives Favreau a chance to stage a couple of big action scenes. One of them goes off poorly — it's like a superpowered dance-battle — but the other one, at the film's climax, is energetic and appropriately explosive. If you thought the end of Iron Man was unsatisfying as an action sequence, the finale of this film is aimed directly at you.

The film would be a lot better off without trying to shoulder any of the burden of Demon in a Bottle. Here, Stark isn't an alcoholic, but it turns out that having a zillion-kilowatt power source embedded in your chest isn't super-healthy. Shocker! That gives Stark a reason to exhibit shaky, secretive and reclusive behavior. It also gives him a reason to drink, leading directly to the dodgy action sequence I mentioned above. (Seriously: when a high-powered fight scene set in part to a Daft Punk song doesn't work, you know you've screwed up.)

The idea seems to be that this story aspect is meant to internalize all of the external pressures on Stark. In other words, being Iron Man is literally a damaging prospect. But the whole opening thesis of the film, as presented in the sequences where (a) Vanko builds his own armor and (b) Tony faces down the US Senate over ownership of Iron Man, is that Tony should, to a great extent, be dealing with external pressures. Internalizing them as the movie does ends up doing a disservice to both the opening ideas and Stark's character in general.

When Stark does deal with the pressure and his own hubris, the resolution doesn't come from within him, but through a plot device that wouldn't be out of place in a National Treasure movie.

These are big problems. In almost any other scenario, I would hate this movie. What's different about Iron Man 2?

In a word: personality. Robert Downey, Jr. can play Tony Stark in his sleep, but he's certainly not sleepwalking through this one. He lends any dialogue sequence, especially ones with a combative edge, a snappy sensibility that is all too rare in any film of late, much less in summer tentpoles. Sam Rockwell, playing a jealous, childish arms industrialist, goes toe to toe with Downey and doesn't look at all the worse for wear. And though Mickey Rourke is saddled with an utterly preposterous part — he's dirty and sly and technologically brilliant and a software genius, and so much more — he sinks his teeth right into Vanko and mauls every moment like a lion tearing into a zebra.

Furthermore, while Scarlett Johansson is rather subdued, her appearances offer enjoyable tension, and the rest of the cast generally keeps pace with the core trio. Gwyneth Paltrow has a harder edge and lot more to do, and though Don Cheadle struggles to establish his take on Jim Rhodes at the outset, by the second act he's cruising nicely at Downey's speed. I couldn't get as into Samuel L. Jackson's take on Nick Fury, the eyepatch-wearing head of shadowy government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. He downplays Fury's cool power a bit too much.

And because there is quite a lot of story to get through, the pace is zippy as hell, and the whole thing goes by in a flash. Waiting for the post-credits scene you might realize that you were just the victim of a $200m shell game, but when the huckster is Robert Downey, Jr., it's hard to get too worked up over being taken.

The story may be a mess (it's almost like they just made it up as they went along) but Favreau actually balances the character breakdown well. Not too big a deal is made out of Vanko's Whiplash alter-ego, for one. He powers a big action sequence at a Formula One race in Monte Carlo, which is the film's first-act high point. And for most of the rest of the film Vanko takes a quieter role, working his own angle that may or may not help or harm Justin Hammer's attempt to seize Stark's glory. That's the movie's best con, and it gives Rourke and Rockwell a few great opportunities to bounce off one another.

Despite being charmed, I'm left wondering: what's the point of the story? Stark doesn't have to come to terms with his public status as Iron Man; he's OK with that at the outset. He does have to come to terms with some of the deeper implications of that open identity, and with the conflict it leads to with the US government. Those issues are tangentially resolved, but not in any satisfying way. Even as setup for super-team film The Avengers, which is definitely one of the movie's aims, things are only partially set. If you don't have any idea what the 'Avengers Initiative' represents going into the film, you won't have a much better idea when the credits roll. In so many ways, Iron Man 2 is an unresolved tangle of threads.

And yet I had a hell of a good time watching it, in the moment. Again: personality goes a long way. This should probably be a warning to me to stay away from charismatic salesmen, because in Downey, Rockwell and Rourke this movie has three very effective pitchmen. And despite the fact that they're selling a pretty shaky story, I willingly bought into it.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

(Edit: After publishing this review, I encapsulated the film via Twitter as "a really happy drunk," and if you need the short form review, that's it.)